The Life of a Cop
... ever wonder what it's like?

It ain't easy, wearing blue ...

"I am the Officer"

I have been where you fear to be,
I have seen what you fear to see,
I have done what you fear to do -
All these things I have done for you.
I am the person you lean upon,
The one you cast your scorn upon,
The one you bring your troubles to -
All these people I've been for you.
The one you ask to stand apart,
The one you feel should have no heart,
The one you call "The Officer in Blue,"
But I'm just a person, just like you.
And through the years I've come to see,
That I am not always what you ask of me;
So, take this badge ... take this gun ...
Will you take it ... will anyone?
And when you watch a person die
And hear a battered baby cry,
Then do you think that you can be
All these things you ask of me?

The following appeared in the Long Beach Press Telegram, April 7, 2002:

Police officers are always on the job

By Tom Hennessy
Staff columnist

At the time it happened, police officer Jim Smith was walking through a shopping mall near his home. Suddenly, he found himself face to face with a man he had arrested just two weeks earlier.

"I looked at him. He looked at me. I could see that he knew me."

There were other factors.

For one thing, the man was much bigger than Smith, who was off-duty at the time. "If I'd had to fight him without my tools (baton, handcuffs, pepper spray), he'd have won."

For another thing, Smith was carrying his son, then 18 months old. Looking back on the incident, Smith refers to it as his "awakening."

Deciding it would not do to raise children in the same community in which he arrested people for a living, Smith moved his family to Orange County, putting distance between them and Long Beach, where he has been an officer for more than a decade.

Jim Smith, as you may have guessed, is a pseudonym, used here for the officer's protection. Over the years, I've come to know some police officers never closely, but well enough to realize that when their shift is over and they leave the problems of police work behind, a whole new set of problems kicks in. Simply put, W.S. Gilbert's observation that "a policeman's lot is not a happy one" applies around the clock.

Recently, Officer Smith agreed to talk to me about the off-duty life of officers. He did so with the blessing of the police chief's office. And he shared anecdotes from other officers as well as his own.

He tells, for example, of a fellow officer who, arriving home in a Long Beach suburb after work, stopped at a shopping mall only to be confronted by a man, perhaps demented, perhaps not. The man screamed a stream of invective that made it clear he knew the officer was a member of the Long Beach Police Department.

Obviously, he had followed the policeman home.

The man produced a shotgun from the trunk of his car. Noting that there were children nearby, the officer wisely chose not to use his service revolver. He defused the situation simply by driving off. From his car, he called local police, who then handled the situation.

"He did not recognize the guy," says Smith. "He couldn't put the guy's face to any cases he had been working. But the incident freaked him out."

There are cases of bad guys tracing officers virtually to their front doors. "A guy who will find out where you live may be the kind of guy who will follow out a threat, too."

How much protection does the Police Department give an officer in such a situation? Quite a bit, says Smith. "They'll go as far as putting a black and white (patrol car) outside your home."

Never a break

Smith finds there is never a time when he is not a police officer. His neighbors know he is a policeman. The fact that he is one in another community makes no difference to them when things get sticky in the neighborhood.

"They may have a problem in which they need to call the police, but they'll call me instead."

One neighbor enlisted Smith to serve an eviction notice on a tenant. Doing it proved easier than saying no. Fortunately, the tenant offered no resistance.

Smith believes that cops who get involved in neighborhood situations like that are putting themselves at greater risk than if they were on duty.

For one thing, they are usually without the tools of their trade, as Smith was in the mall incident. The missing tools can include their service weapon. (Contrary to popular belief, officers are not required to carry their firearms off duty.)

In a sense, Smith is always working even when off duty.

" You see things that civilians don't see. I'll be driving with my wife and say, 'There's a drug deal going down.' There's nothing I can do about it. I could call it in, but they'll be gone in 15 seconds."

Off duty, his service revolver also poses problems. There is no such thing as hiding it from his three children.

"We have to teach our kids about guns. Eventually, they're going to see it. (Maybe) the kid is just hugging you, and he sees the gun in your jacket."

On a family outing once, one of Smith's children noticed a man wearing a kind of purse around his waist. The child went up to the man and said: "Do you have a gun in there? My daddy has a gun."

Smith later told the boy, "You can't tell strangers I have a gun or that Daddy is a police officer."

Would he use the gun off duty?

"Sure. If somebody is going to do something to hurt my family or to a civilian and I can stop it, I will do so." During an out-of-state trip, he says, he drew his gun when his wife appeared to be under threat from a stranger.

Same old same old

Most people find it a novelty to have a friend who is a police officer. They are apt to introduce him not as Jim Smith, but as "My friend, Jim. He's a cop."

"What follows can be unpleasant for the officer," says Smith. "Inevitably, you're going to hear about every rude cop they ever met and every ticket they got that wasn't deserved. Then comes the usual question: 'Have you ever shot anybody?' "

Other difficulties arise from the public's perception of police. "Most people learn about law enforcement from the media. In the entertainment industry, law enforcement is the No. 1 topic. People look at shows like 'Sunset Beach' and think that's real."

Smith points to the old "CHiPs" television show to illustrate how divorced from reality such programs can be.

"In CHiPs, they never drew their guns because they wanted it to be a nonviolent show. Ridiculous. My gun is out of my holster at least once a week."

He also finds that news stories often identify a bad guy as the son of a police officer.

"But you'll never see a bad guy identified as the son of, say, an aerospace worker."

A different life

The off-day problems of police could fill a page of this newspaper. Officers will be called to court on days off, only to arrive there and find they are not needed. Their spouses are alone much of the time.

Of his wife, Smith says, "She is basically a single mother of three children four nights a week."

The officer who does wrong or is suspected of doing wrong may be doubly penalized by the court system and by his department's internal affairs unit. For these and myriad other reasons, Smith admits that "a lot of cops are hard to live with."

Once, in a gathering of six officers, they counted nine divorces among them. "The group included me, and I've never been divorced," says Smith.

In a column written two years ago after the fatal shooting of Long Beach Officer Daryle Black, I wrote this: "Try as we may to fathom what being a police officer is like, most of us cannot do it. We cannot measure all those lesser sacrifices that go with the job: the missed anniversaries and birthdays, the family dinners with one chair vacant, the Little League games when Officer Dad or Officer Mom is not there, the times when the family creeps around the house as the officer parent sleeps off a night shift."

Interviewing Officer Smith confirmed all that and more. Yet for all the problems of being an officer on duty and off Smith considers himself a lucky man.

"It's the greatest job in the world," he says. "I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Tom Hennessy's viewpoint appears Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He can be reached at (562) 499-1270, or via e-mail at